1. Dáil Statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD on Opposing Domestic Violence

Dáil Statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD on Opposing Domestic Violence

 

 

18th December 2014

 

 

I welcome the opportunity for members of the Dáil to express their views in opposing domestic violence.

 

Each and every one of us, no matter which side of the House we sit on, got into politics to right wrongs and eliminate evil.

Each and every one of us, sooner or later, realises that no matter what we do, some evils do not go away.

 

Child abuse doesn't go away.

Sexual violence doesn’t go away.

Gender-based violence doesn’t go away.

Domestic violence doesn’t go away.

 

A study undertaken by Cosc found that over 70% considered domestic abuse to be a common problem in Ireland.

 

Domestic violence doesn’t go away.

Its very constancy might tempt us to shrug and move away from it. That can never happen. It can never be permitted to become a norm in the minority of homes.

 

For the victim, domestic violence is devastating.

It destroys trust. The sense of self. Self-respect. It often causes a retreat from work and from social networks.

 

Preventing domestic violence... and protecting and supporting the victims of domestic violence requires legislation, services and good consistent practice.

 

National Strategy

In order to coordinate this multi-faceted approach, Ireland has, in recent years, had in place a National Strategy for tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

 

The Government is committed to updating this Strategy, as a new blueprint for future initiatives. COSC is overseeing this work.

 

A final review of the strategy was completed in the summer of 2014 and is now feeding into the development of the second strategy. Invitations to 100 groups and individuals to partake in the review and suggest proposals for the second strategy resulted in 34 submissions which are feeding into the development of the second strategy. A national consultation forum on a new strategy was held in Dublin Castle on the 17th of November which I attended. The day was informative and that information will assist in identifying priorities for the second strategy which will run from 2015 for a period of four to five years.

 

In October the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence produced recommendations on domestic and sexual violence following two days of hearings from organisations that had made submissions to them. These recommendations will also be considered in the development of the new national strategy.

 

As with the first strategy, the new strategy will take a “whole of government” approach to the complex intersection of agencies and organisations which each hold part of the response to these issues.

 

Istanbul Convention

A key benchmark I hope will be met via implementation of the new Strategy will be Ireland’s ratification of the Council of Europe's Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, better known as The Istanbul Convention.

 

I hope to sign the convention on behalf of Ireland in 2015.

 

While Ireland is well advanced already in providing for the requirements of the Istanbul Convention, further actions will be required ahead of full ratification. I intend to include an action plan to get us to ratification in the new national strategy.

 

Domestic Violence legislation

A key step in this regards will be delivering on a key Programme for Government committed to introduce consolidated and updated legislation on Domestic Violence.

Work is proceeding on this Bill and I would hope to bring heads of the Bill to Government early in the New Year

 

EU Victims Directive

Another key element of legislation in progress is the bill to deliver on my commitment to ensure the implementation in Ireland during 2015 of the EU Victims Directive.

 

The EU Directive considerably strengthens the rights of victims and their family members to information, support and protection as well as their procedural rights when participating in criminal proceedings. It also includes provisions to ensure professionals are trained on victims' needs and encourage cooperation between Member States and awareness raising on victims' rights.

 

I expect to bring heads of the bill to implement the EU Victims Directive to Cabinet in the New Year. This legislation is only one step of a broader approach to support victims.

 

I want 2015 to be the year when we put the rights of the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system.

 

Delivering for victims is a key goal in addressing the grim reality of domestic violence.

 

Dormant Accounts funding

I can today announce that I providing an allocation of €230,000 for victims’ services under the Dormant Accounts Disbursement Scheme

 

The Crime Victims Helpline has been funded to run awareness raising measures in relation to the helpline. The helpline provides information, emotional support and onward referral to face to face support services to victims of crime. Victims, potential victims and the general public need to be informed of the existence of the Helpline if it is to fulfil its function. The Helpline uses the standard EU-wide victim support phone number - 116 006.

 

Victim Support at Court provides court accompaniment services to victims of serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter, death by dangerous driving, attempted murder and tiger kidnapping in Dublin. The provision of dormant funds money will permit that service to expand its services beyond Dublin.

 

Funding for both projects will continue to be available and enhanced in 2015.

 

Additional funding to organisations supporting victims of crime should help them build new, expanded or improved services in 2015.

 

New Victims Liaison Offices

Another key development in 2015 will be the planned establishment of a new Victims Liaison Office in each Garda Division.

 

The Victims Services Offices will be the central point of contact for all victims of crime and trauma in each Garda Division. They will provide advice, information and support to victims. The Offices will supplement victim support activity already being undertaken by members of An Garda Síochána. The Offices will be staffed by dedicated, specially trained personnel who will keep victims informed of all significant developments associated with their case, as well as providing guidance and support. They will provide victims of crime with a direct contact to ensure they get the service they deserve.

 

Garda Inspectorate Report

In speaking of an Garda Síochána, I must refer to the recent Garda Inspectorate report on the Investigation of Crime.

 

That report found that, in some cases, Gardaí provide a very good level of service to victims of domestic violence. That finding has been reiterated by domestic violence support services around the country. That good practice must become the standard which can be expected for all such victims.

 

However the report also pointed to significant concerns in relation to the support for victims in too many other cases.

 

I have asked the newly appointed Commissioner, Ms Noírín O’Sullivan, to report back to me on how An Garda Síochána will implement the Inspectorate’s recommendations; on all issues but particularly domestic violence. I know the Commissioner recognised the vital important this and that she too is committed to delivering improvements.

 

The Commissioner has made a very clear statement that victims of all crimes can have full confidence in the Gardaí, and should come forward with an assurance that they will be supported and their cases fully and properly investigated.

 

I welcome the establishment of an Implementation Steering Group by An Garda Síochána to oversee implementation of the Inspectorate’s recommendations.

 

I also especially welcome the decision by An Garda Síochána, following a successful pilot, to roll out a new system of risk assessing all domestic violence incidents. I understand this involved speaking to all injured parties to see how they felt their incident was handled by An Garda Síochána. This information will then be used to improve how we respond to domestic violence incidents.

 

The Gardaí have also indicated that they will also be regularly tracking the views of victims of crime through a new quarterly Public Attitude Survey, which started recently, and a well-established National Victims of Crime Forum. The feedback from these will be used to identify areas for improvement.

 

Alcohol

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I often commented on the harsh reality of the influence of alcohol and drugs in child abuse and neglect cases.

 

Now, as Minister for Justice, I am seeing similar trends all over again in terms of the influence of alcohol and drugs on criminal offending.

 

We all know that alcohol abuse plays a role fuelling many cases of domestic violence.

This is just another example of the shocking impact of the misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs on Irish society.

Too many lives, too many opportunities are broken by addiction and resultant high-risk behaviour.

 

Addressing the scourge of alcohol and substance misuse is; and must remain, a priority for the whole-of-Government and for a broad range of services ranging from early intervention to family support.

 

Awareness raising

We need to make it clearer that abuse in the home is not acceptable. Under the present strategy, Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence has run an annual funding programme for awareness raising efforts around the country. Just under €300,000 was provided in funding in 2014. Funds are provided to local domestic violence support services to promote their services and highlight the issues. This is done in addition to efforts to reach specific groups of people such as students and professionals in legal and medical services. Funding has also been provided in support of the White Ribbon and MAN UP campaigns which encourage men to stand against domestic violence and be positive actors in all their relationships with women and children. I encourage all of us here today to support these campaigns positively.

 

Another element of our national strategy entails reviewing our laws in this area. Taking a stand against violence for oneself involves a very difficult decision; to apply for a court order against the person who is meant to be your protector and your closest, most intimate friend. The in camera rule applicable to domestic violence hearings was intended to alleviate a complainant’s fear of being identified in public when bringing a complaint against a partner or loved one. However, there had been concerns that the rule was preventing the workings of the courts from being considered and debated on an evidential basis rather than an anecdotal basis. This Government has now modified the in camera rule to allow media reporting of family law cases, including domestic violence proceedings. There are appropriate protections to prevent the identification of individuals, especially children. Media reporting has the potential to support more consistent approaches by different courts to the difficult issue of domestic violence, not only in relation to the various hearings concerning domestic violence orders, but in family law hearings generally.

 

Other legislative changes which this Government has made to improve the operation of our domestic violence laws include the provision for orders to be made for same sex couples in a civil partnership arrangement to be treated on the same basis as married couples, and for same sex couples living together in intimate relationships to be treated on a par with opposite sex couples in the same situation. Couples who have a child in common may also now apply for safety and protection orders even where they have never lived together. We have also removed the six month time period for residing together which previously applied prior to being eligible for safety and protection orders. I expect to publish additional legislative proposals in the early part of the New Year to consolidate and reform domestic violence legislation in order to address all aspects of domestic violence, threatened violence and intimidation. The strengthening of our legislative base in this area will be complemented by the introduction of further amendments necessary for Ireland to implement the EU’s Victims Directive in the latter part of next year.

 

Tusla – The Child and Family Agency

Another development which is relevant to the State’s actions on domestic violence is the establishment of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, on 1 January 2014. The functions of Tusla include the requirement that the Agency provide ‘care and protection for victims of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence, whether in the context of the family or otherwise’. I understand that Tusla intends to prioritise effective organisational structures for collaborative working on domestic violence in 2015.

 

Court Responses

Where domestic violence is alleged, protection is also available through our courts. Priority court dates are available to ensure that appropriate court processes can be applied as promptly as can be. The President of the District Court in allocating judicial resources makes every effort to ensure that delays, in the hearing of family law cases, and in cases involving domestic violence in particular, are kept to a minimum.

 

Since 2011, three organisations are involved in providing support and referral services for women every week-day morning on site in Dolphin House. The Service is available to all women using the court for applications under the Domestic Violence Act, and other ancillary orders (child custody, access, maintenance, guardianship, production of infants) and women who present in the court office and where domestic violence is an issue. The service provides information relating to action the woman is taking, explains the possible outcomes of Court proceedings, provides safety planning information and gives information about on-going support and advocacy services and how they can avail of these services. AMEN, a state-supported Non-Governmental Organisation working with male victims of domestic violence, also provide an outreach service in Dolphin House on one day per week.

 

A similar service is now in place in Dundalk District Court and other court jurisdictions are planning to introduce it in their area.

 

A new Family Law and Children Court complex is proposed for a site at Hammond Lane and discussions are underway between my Department and the Office of Public Works in the matter.

 

Housing Issues

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is overseeing the development of guidance in consultation with housing authorities, Tusla, the Housing Agency, the Department of Social Protection and Cosc. The guidance will clarify the housing arrangements for victims of domestic violence, including a recent change to housing legislation. I understand that the guidelines are to be published before the end of the year.

In addition, I understand that the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 amended the Housing Act of 2009 to enable a person, who may have a share in the family home, to qualify for social housing assessment where they have left that home because of marriage breakdown, possibly because of domestic violence. This may permit such a person to access housing support until such time as they have resolved any ownership issues with the other person involved.

 

 

NGO inclusion and participation

Our first strategy was developed in partnership with the NGOs who provide support services, including refuge places. This partnership includes access to policy making and service planning, through participation in the National Steering Committees on Violence against Women and Violence against Men. An Garda Síochána and Tusla also work in close partnership with these organisations and are also members of the steering committees.

 

Perpetrator Programmes

In many cases where domestic abuse is taking place the best solution is to remove the perpetrator. While our laws allow for that to happen there is also a need to address the behaviour of the perpetrator. We now have 13 programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence currently operating in Ireland for which my Department provided just over €390,000 in funding in 2013. The aim of each programme is to change the attitudes and behaviour of perpetrators of domestic violence, in conjunction with measures to support the victims of their violence. All programmes have a dedicated partner contact element and dedicated partner contact workers who are engaged by the programme management to work with any partner or ex-partner of the men on the programme who wish to be involved. The partner contact worker also provides practical support and advice to women in violent/controlling relationships.

 

 

Conclusion

The fact that domestic violence runs like an underground river through our society does not mean that we can ever accept it. The fact that it fines new routes, creates new tributaries with passing time should make us more, rather than less resolute when it comes to dealing with it, because deal with it we must. As we must deal with its victims. Meeting the complexities of the need with a cross-disciplinary commitment.